13 April 2006 | Helen Gilbert
A university that was charging companies just to tender for its printing contract has backed down following pressure from a printing federation.
Small companies feared they would be squeezed out of the public-sector contract market after two universities began charging companies between £75 and £120 to release pre-qualification questionnaires for their contracts.
But the University of Hertfordshire admitted it had made a mistake after the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF) used the Freedom of Information Act to investigate why it was charging and what the sums were used for.
A university spokesperson told SM
that cheques would now be returned to companies. "Earlier this year, under advice, we introduced a charge to businesses wishing to tender for our printing contract," she said.
"One of the main reasons behind this was to enable us to identify serious applications for the work from suitably qualified firms. It is not normal practice for us to charge for tenders. We now recognise that attempting to restrict demands for print tenders in this way was a mistake and all cheques are being returned."
Kevin Burke, managing director of Oak Filing, a specialist folders company and BPIF member, said he had refused to pay the charge and consequently lost his chance to tender for the contract.
He fears costs could stack up if more organisations start charging, especially as he responds to at least three public contract notices a week. Craftprint, another BPIF member, was asked to pay £118 by Salford University to receive a pre-qualification questionnaire for a recent contract notice.
Salford described the charging practice as "normal" for many universities, consortia and local authorities. A spokesperson added it had just invested in an e-tendering system, which would now make tendering more efficient.
"Once this is operational, it would be our intention to drop the policy of charging for EU tender documentation subject to future cost assessments," she said.
The BPIF described the practice, as a "cumulative obstacle to trade" and urged federation members to alert it to notices requiring such payments.
"If a company responds to three of these notices a week in their search for new business, that would mean £18,720 paid out with no guarantee of any business," Lizzy Hawkins, BPIF public affairs officer, said.
"Clearly, payments are going to deter companies from expressing interest in contracts, to the disadvantage of the buyer."